I admit: I may be just a little obsessed with this year’s Superbloom. It has been an exceptional year for wildflowers, and the last couple of months have brought a celebration of them. Temporary and dynamic, they represent life. Like life, it goes by quicker than you realize, and some seasons are better than others. This Spring 2019 just so happens to be one of the best Superblooms I’ve seen in my life.
While places like Carrizo Plain and Antelope Valley get a lot of attention these days, and rightfully so, you don’t have to travel far to see wildflowers in action. The green, undulating hills of California make the perfect landscape for the Spring bloom. One of the best places on the Central Coast to see them is Toro Park near Salinas and Monterey.
Its steep, grassy hills were uplifted along the San Andreas Fault system over the last few million years, raising sandstone and small outcroppings of metamorphic gneiss to the summit at Ollason Peak, elevation 1,800′. Oak trees, shrubs, and chaparral habitat dominate the landscape. I’ve been following the Superbloom at Toro Park this year. My first trip was in late March; I then returned a few times in April. This is my third update for the season, and you can definitely see the difference in landscape over the last two months.
Enjoy the last of the Superbloom; it’s fading out and soon the hills will be golden again. Make the most of their fleeting beauty, whether a slow stroll, a ripping bikeride, or just a nice place to sit. I certainly can’t get enough of it! Here’s a video of mountain biking down Gilson Gap and Meyer’s Loop Trail.
Quail Hollow Ranch in Felton, California, is truly a gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. When I moved up to Ben Lomond from Santa Cruz four years ago, it was one of the first new parks I explored, only a ten minute drive from my house. It has grown on me to become one of my favorite microcosms within the area; an often overlooked diamond in the ruff compared to more popular nearby parks like Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch. It is a diverse, thriving, unique ecosystem, and a special gem of a park.
Quail Hollow is part of the Santa Cruz Sandhills habitat, a peculiar zone of ancient marine seabeds from up to fifteen million years ago. Over the millennia, the uplift of the San Andreas Fault (and its subfaults like the Zayante Fault) rose the sandy seafloor, creating a porous, nutrient-poor soil profile in which specific flora and faun adapted to thrive within. Ponderosa Pines also grow here, which are more commonly found in the Sierra Nevadas. It is a mix of Chaparral, Oak woodland, grassy meadows, and dwarf Redwood forest. Seven endemic species call it their home, including the Ben Lomond Spineflower.
Quail Hollow Ranch was settled in 1866 by Joseph Kenville, and later purchased by the Lane family of Sunset Magazine fame in 1938, where the main ranch house was used for a test kitchen and staging home for the magazine. In 1974, the main property, including still working horse stables and surrounding 300-acres, was purchased by the county. Check out Quail Hollow Ranch: A History, by Susan Collins Lehmann, for much more interesting information about its natural and anthropological history.
It changes beautifully throughout the year. Right now, it is bursting at the seams with gorgeous, vibrant wildflowers. Blankets of Lupine flowers, Vetch, and special yellow Poppies color the landscape like spilled paint. When you first drive into the park, the undulating hillside exploding with purple Lupine flowers will take your breath away. It’s not uncommon for people to stop midway down the road, get out of the car, and take a picture or four. It’s absolutely stunning – and fleeting. Knowing how quickly it goes, I savor these days when the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Fernald’s Iris, White Fairy Lanterns, and Sweet Pea arch gracefully toward the sky. Oak trees are blooming with their broccoli-like clusters, fluorescent with new life. It is magical here. Wildlife abounds. I once saw a family of Bobcats here – two cubs and both parents. It was one of the biggest gifts Nature has given me to witness their play and familial interaction, oblivious to my camouflage sentry point.
I also saw a Mountain Lion here, only a few days ago. I was hiking on the Chaparral Loop, at a nice, meandering pace; I was taking some pictures of wildflowers, and taking in a sort of “forest bathing” experience. Suddenly, a young spotted fawn emerged onto the trail, and bounded toward me. I moved out of its way, and recorded it as it ran off. I was mildly concerned that it was separate from its parent, but next I heard a curious sound: loud, rhythmic exhaling. Not quite a snort, but like someone was violently blowing their nose. I looked up the hillside to see an adult deer, the doe Mother of the fawn I’d just seen, quite presumably.
What is she doing? I pondered. It was pretty obvious there was some kind of threat. Within a few seconds, the movement of a large mountain lion turning to skulk up the hillside came into view. I scrambled to grab my phone to film it as it slowly crept away, its long tail going out of sight. The deer bound across the forest a few paces, and then stopped abruptly, facing uphill toward the puma. Twitching her tail and occasionally stamping her hoof, she continued to exhale rather loudly in about five-second intervals. I stood in awe, wondering if I was going to see a live kill. I was close to the ranch house and parking lot, so I knew I could scream if the very low probability of the cougar going after me were to ensue. Mountain lions are elusive and avoid humans, generally speaking, and clearly deer, its main staple, was on the menu tonight.
I stood there about ten minutes, watching the deer snort and stand off, before it ultimately bounded off near me. I swear it felt some relief seeing me standing there on the trail. Making its escape route next to me wasn’t a coincidence, I don’t think.
When I got home, I quickly Googled Deer exhaling loudly and came across deer-hunting websites explaining the behavior. It was certainly a defensive behavior to an established, clear threat of a predator. I had never seen this before, and found it super interesting to observe. Knowing it means a hunter is near, however, makes me wary of seeing it again in the future.
The second thing I Googled was Fawn separated from doe, which led me to an educational page from the Wildlife Center of Virginia . Its slogan was: Don’t be a Fawn-Napper! Apparently, every Spring and Summer, well-intentioned people find fawn alone in the forest, panic that it’s been abandoned, and try to rescue it by taking it to a local wildlife shelter. Though I hadn’t considered “rescuing” the fawn, I admit I didn’t know what I learned next: fawn and mothers stay apart during the daylight hours, reuniting at dusk. The mother will purposely stay away from the fawn to avoid drawing predators to their young. The next time I see a young fawn alone in the forest, I won’t be so concerned. Unless, of course, a mountain lion may have just been hunting it! Here’s a video of the whole encounter, Variable Checkerspot Butterfly and wildflowers to boot:
That was the third time I’ve ever seen a Mountain Lion. The first time was while running on the Zane Grey loop at Wilder Ranch, and the second time was mountain biking down Fenceline trail, also in Wilder. Both times it turned away from me; both times were in the Springtime, just like this time. Spring is one of the most active time for all animals, and every time I go for a hike or a bikeride, I remind myself that I am in their home, in their backyard. We share the landscape, and especially in Springtime, it’s important to be aware of our animal friends (snakes on the trail included).
By Summer, the hills will dry out, with perennials like Yerba Santa, Manzanita, and Silver Bush Lupine will be in their prime. Quail Hollow boasts the hottest average temperature anywhere in Santa Cruz County, and it certainly lives up to its name on the southwestern, sandier slopes on a mid-Summer’s day. Reptiles abound; it’s a wonderful place to spot all kinds of herps, rattlesnakes included.
With Autumn comes shorter days, changing leaf colors, and the onset of shedding Summer’s bounty. Deciduous trees start to lose their leaves, and the trails are about as dry as they’ll ever be. Some sections of the trail are as deep and loose as beach sand. By the time the late-Fall rains start, usually around November, mosses spring to life on the trees, and fungi start to emerge. It’s a welcome sight.
Winter is a special time of year here, with many mushrooms pushing out from under leafpiles, and gray fog clinging to the hillside like a blanket. There’s barely anyone here, and if you hike all the way up the Sunset Trail , you will get a nice peek of the Monterey Bay, reminding you of the upcoming nice weather of Spring and Summer. If you only have a short time frame, go for a quick but satisfying stroll on the Chaparral Loop. If you have about an hour or so, take the full five-mile Sunset Loop, which will also take you through a dazzling, dwarf Redwood forest, full of candy-like Trillium flowers in the Spring.
Top of Sunset Trail
False Solomon’s Seal
Which leads us back to right now – sweet, beautiful Springtime. Now is the best time to see Quail Hollow’s full palette of colors. Enjoy a slow saunter through the Oaks, and let the warm sun make you feel like you’re at the beach. You are, in fact, at the beach – just one that’s several million years old and about 1,000′ above sea-level.
Wilder Ranch State Park, in Santa Cruz, California, is full of color and activity this time of year. With the Spring wildflower bloom in full effect, this is an ideal time to get outside and enjoy nature’s kaleidoscope of flowers. With sandy to loamy soils that gently wind up ancient marine terraces, equestrians, hikers, runners, and mountain bikers alike are all out in full force these days enjoying the gorgeous landscape.
One of my favorite (legal) trails within Wilder Ranch is Enchanted Loop Trail. It’s a pretty short downhill through a redwood canyon teeming with ferns, clovers, and moss. After the exceptional Winter we had this year, everything is ultra vibrant.
Elegant Cluster Lily (Brodiaea elegans)
Elegant Cluster Lily (Brodiaea elegans)
Though known more for cross-country mountain biking, Wilder is a fun spot that makes up for its infamous ruts with its exceptional beauty. Ocean views, expansive fields of green, and pops of glowing wildflowers beckon you to take frequent breaks and enjoy the scenery. By mid-Summer, it will still be beautiful here, but not like the Spring bloom. This is a truly special, finite time of year.
Golden Star (Triteleia ixioides)
Coast Live Oak
California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) with Blue-Eyed Grass
Watch out for Snakes in the Trail!
Nice Gopher Snake!
Purple Owl’s Clover (Castilleja exserta)
Golden Star (Triteleia ixioides)
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris)
Baptisia Yellow Bush Lupine
Coast Live Oak
Here’s a video of my ride today down Enchanted Loop. Enjoy this beautiful Spring!
It’s an old saying that means an indefinitely long time, originating from the unhurried, meandering timeframe for cows to return home to the barn at night. It’s a phrase I would see in action on my mountain bike ride at Toro Park in Salinas, California, in late April 2019.
I grew up in Lafayette, California, in a bucolic suburb with expansive cow pastures. My two older sisters and I, and a gang of neighborhood friends, would roam those hills until, as it were, the cows came home. Summer evenings were spent on rope-swings slung over old-growth Oak, after long walks on cowpie-laden trails. It was beautiful out there.
But I was always a little bit scared of the cows. They would just stand there in the trail and stare at us, obstinately flicking flies from their rumps with their fickle tails. Sometimes they would moo at you with a wild look in their eye, or a bull would take a step toward you. They could trample you should they please. I developed a healthy respect for them.
When I went for a ride on Pipeline Trail at Toro Park, I would have to come face-to-face with cows again. Though I’m not afraid of them anymore, I am not totally at home with them, either. As I climbed up Ollason fireroad, I came across a small herd of them in the trail; I shooed them out of the way and continued along. The climb up was so gorgeous with all of the flowers exploding off the hillside, I kept stopping to enjoy the view!
Monterey Bay Views
When I made it up to Ollason Peak, I rested and had a good snack. Then, I set out down Pipeline Trail. Only a few minutes into the downhill, I came across several cows blocking the trail. The terrain is a steep ravine, overgrown on all sides, and the trail a narrow singletrack. I tried to scare them off; I clapped my hands, stomped my feet, and even tried riding my bike toward them. I soon realized there was nowhere for me to pass above or below them. There was barely room for the cows.
I started clapping my hands and directing them along, which most of them were receptive, albeit slow, to do. There were a couple of cows, though, who turned around in the trail, stomped their feet, and mooed that sort of howl-like “Don’t mess with me!” alarm call. I backed off a touch when they did that, spotting the nearest tree to climb up should one decide to charge me. But I stood my ground, kept telling them to Git!, and before I knew it, I was herding them slowly down the trail until an opportunity to pass presented itself. They were tearing the trail up as they sauntered along, which was a bummer to see.
Ollason Peak, 1,800′
After a good half hour or so, I was definitely getting impatient. I learned what the saying ‘Til the cows come home really meant. These behemoths were talking their sweet time making their way along, stopping to eat often. I realized they were probably a little out of their element as well, confined to a balance-beam of a trail.
I finally came across a bend in the trail that crossed over a small creek. The cows were in the corner of the trail, masticating on tall grasses and considering the turn in the trail. If I could just get across the creek, I could get in front of them, but it was steep and overgrown. I neared them slowly until I could make my way down a shallower slope, and made my way in front of them at last! All in all, we’d only slithered about a quarter of a mile down the trail. It’d just gone at a snail’s pace – or a cow’s pace, rather. It was comical, but also somewhat frustrating while it was happening. I was so relieved to clear those cows!
Moreover, the Superbloom is in full effect at Toro Park in late April; it was like biking through a painting! I cannot get enough of all the wildflowers. I love the vast openness of Toro. Only an hour’s drive South of Santa Cruz, it’s a great place to ride.
Here’s a video of the ride and my stand-off with the cows; I filmed them as I tried to scurry them along. Toro Park sure earned its name! I’d heard stories of cows on the trail before, but now I have my own tale to tell.
When I ask people if they’ve been to Carrizo Plain National Monument in California, I sometimes get a quizzical, Where exactly is that? Or, they light up with an enthusiastic Yes! If you haven’t yet been, go see for yourself just how awesome this place is during a Superbloom!
One of the largest remaining grasslands on the West Coast, antelope and elk used to roam the landscape in troves. It’s not the size it once was before California was settled, making it all that more important to preserve and protect.
If you go in the Springtime, ideally after an incredibly wet Winter like the one we had this year, your eyes, soul, and heart will thank you deeply. I hadn’t been to Carrizo Plain until two years ago in 2017, also a Superbloom year (read that post here). I was so moved the first time I went, I knew I had to back again. I relished a gorgeous bike ride up Caliente Ridge with sweeping views of the valley; I’ll always remember it vividly. After the epic rains we received this year, I knew this Spring would be on fire!
I set out on Monday, April 1, 2019, for this trip, about a three and a half hour drive South of Santa Cruz. Driving in on Highway 58 from the Paso Robles area, the hillsides began to explode with fluorescent, vibrant colors. I kept pulling over to look at the scenery, and joined a few others at Shell Creek Road. I’d heard about this spot online; that it was a beautiful street near the Plain that was known for its own impressive blooms. It was surely a gorgeous sight, with a cool creek meandering through it, and the warm 80ºF weather inviting me to relax. It was totally worth the stop!
About thirty minutes further down the road is Carrizo Plain. Along the way, I noticed several large solar arrays. It’s strange to see them dominating the landscape.
I started out at the Wallace Creek site first, a geological wonder where the San Andreas Fault has offset the creekbed over the years. It’s a short hike, and a welcome stretch after sitting in the car so long. I love Plate Tectonics, and it is always a treat to visit Ground Zero for our state’s greatest landbuilding feature, the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault.
After Wallace Creek, I drove down Simmler Road , which leads you down a dirt road into the Soda Lake lakebed that centers the valley. By late Summer, this will be a dry, dusty, alkaline lakebed; the water will evaporate quickly under the baking Summer sun. There were few visitors here today, and plenty of room to pull over and park along the road to take pictures and take in the sights.
After driving through Soda Lake, I went to the Visitor’s Center. I hiked up toward Painted Rock, enjoying relics of farming equipment on display.
Visitor’s Center Displays
I continued West along the southern edge of the plain, pulling off a few more times to savor the intensely vivid landscape. The pictures here do not show the magic! It’s almost a religious experience being here; the silence, the vast plains, and the psychedelic kaleidoscopes of colors make you feel like you’re in paradise. It’s something I highly recommend you experience at least once in your life! Now that I’ve been only twice, I plan many more visits in the coming years. There are numerous unique wildflowers and animals that call this place their home. Go enjoy it firsthand – and soon!
I saw some Bison on the way home along Highway 58!